“The World to Come” in Best American Short Stories 2013

As you might have read in a previous post, Jim’s story “The World to Come” has been included in the Best American Anthology this year.  The story is a love story between two nineteenth century farm women and originally appeared in One Story.  Here is a mini interview with Jim from the One Story issue:

Q&A by Hannah Tinti (Taken from One Story website which you can find here)


Where did the idea of this story come from?

I’d come across a book chronicling the worst storms in the history of New England. (That’s the kind of book I tend to read.) I was struck, going through it, by just the day-to-day arduousness and loneliness of the farmers’ lives. That led me to other histories and journals and diaries, and I came across a farmer’s one-line notation about how sad his wife was, because her one friend had moved away.

The details of “The World to Come” feel so authentic—from the farming tools to the medicinal herbs. How much research did you do to create this world?

I started researching last June, and, though I was also doing other things in the meantime, didn’t start writing until early December.

Why did you decide to tell this story in the format of journal entries, instead of a straight narrative?


I wanted to catch if I could the moment-to-moment and day-to-day nature of 19th century farming lives, as well as how seasonally based those lives were: the importance of the weather, and their meals, and of course the drudgery. But the journal nature of the story also seemed crucial when it came to capturing all of the little ways in which the narrator has let her Tallie down.


Do you think it was only desperate circumstances that drew these women together, or was it a deeper connection? And did you know from the start this would be a love story?


Unsurprisingly, I think it was both. I do think they would have been powerfully drawn to one another even had they met under less desperate circumstances, but then, they don’t consider the circumstances particularly desperate (until the end). And almost immediately I knew it would be a love story; the question at that point became how repressed a love story it would be.


At one point the narrator, thinking of her pioneer mother (born in 1780), remarks: “I wonder now at the courage and the resourcefulness of those women who fared forth, not knowing where they were being led, to begin to chip into the wilderness the foundations of a civilization.” This story in many ways feels like a tribute to these women—and the losses they were forced to bear. The narrator and Tallie are the next generation, but their lives continue to be severely limited and contained. Is that partly what drew you to write about this time period (1850s)?


That is, yes. Once I decided to write about farm women rather than men, the unsung nature of the burden they bore seemed very clear.


One of the most striking sections is the earthquake that Dyer’s mother goes through. Why did you decide to include this story within a story?


I thought it important to have a figure in the story for another, more terrifying kind of disaster, and for how precarious farmers felt their footholds in their livelihoods (and lives) to be.


Why did you title this story “The World to Come”?


I liked the way in which our narrator early on assures us that she has stopped worrying about that notion, and then finds that Tallie has created for her an entirely new version of a world to come. And then the sadness of imagining what that world to come must look like, for the narrator, once Tallie is dead.


What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?


My thesis advisor at Brown University, John Hawkes, always told me to look for the weirdness in my own work. There was plenty to find.


“He Changed the Way I Look at Writing Forever”

Musician and writer Chris Tarry on Jim Shepard as teacher:

In May 2010 I was doing a jazz composers residency at the Banff Center in Canada. while I was there, I met the super-cool author Meg Wolitzer, who was there as part of the writing faculty. I had just gotten into Breadloaf, and we were having dinner so I asked her who I should sign up for for my Breadloaf workshop teacher. She suggested that Jim Shepard (who was teaching at Breadloaf that year), would be an excellent fit. So, I put down Jim Shepard’s name on the acceptance form having never really read much of his work. Well, long story short, he changed the way I look at writing forever. Truly inspirational. I’ve been lucky enough to have kept in touch with him since, and through Breadloaf (directly or indirectly), he has helped me out with most of the stories in this small collection.

Read Chris Tarry’s interview here. Learn more about Chris Tarry by visiting his blog.

“The Ecstatic History of Jim Shepard”


Stephen Aubry of Electric Literature reviews “Master of Miniatures.”

As fans of Jim Shepard’s long career know, there is nothing the man loves more than film and atomic bombs. Happily, Shepard’s new novella, Master of Miniatures combines these two preoccupations into a new and refreshing reiteration of his classic thematic concerns. Although Shepard’s tale of Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special-effects wizard responsible for creating Gojira—the kaiju known more commonly to Western audiences as Godzilla— brings to mind much of his other works, particularly Nosferatu, his 2005 novel about famed director F. W. Murnau and “The Zero-Meter Diving Team,” the deeply-felt account of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster from Shepard’s 2007 collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, this novella stands on its own as a thoughtful commentary about fallouts both nuclear and domestic.

Much of Jim Shepard’s best fiction depends on a sort of historical pillaging, guided by Shepard’s sharp instincts for selecting the most successful and thematically resonant tidbits of a historical moment. There is frequently a palpable glee to Shepard’s narrative tangents, as if he is just as excited for his reader to discover the thematic harmonics in his stories as he was to discover them in the footnotes of a reference book. But Shepard’s fiction is not about history; his characters are not historical figures (even when they are historical figures.) The secret to Shepard’s historical forays is not how he handles facts, but how he conjures startling imagery and private epiphanies, expanding and enriching our shared history through a hyper-mimetic blurring of the line between fiction and cultural memory. In Master of Miniatures Shepard has transformed a milestone of the atomic age into what Werner Herzog has termed “ecstatic truth,” a sort of documentary history that emphasizes sublime emotional accuracy over the historical factual—what Herzog calls “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

So while nuclear anxiety figures heavily in the mind of Gojira and his Japanese creators, Shepard shrewdly underplays the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the impressionistic centerpiece of Master of Miniatures is the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, a disaster no less deadly for being overshadowed by the nuclear destruction that came to Japan twenty-two years later. For few modern readers will be surprised by descriptions of the mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the imagery of the atomic bomb is too present in our collective unconscious and history textbooks to be truly uncanny anymore. By comparison, Shepard’s description of a tornado “so wide it seemed to cover the horizon…spinning and shot through with fire” razing Tokyo in the aftermath of the Great Kantō earthquake feels like a terrifying revelation.

By de-emphasizing the atomic bomb, Shepard makes this story Tsuburaya’s, stripping Gojira of his semiotic weight and finding a second, smaller way of reading one of the most well-known movie monsters: as its father’s child. As Godjira clumsily plows his way through Tokyo in his burdensome low-tech suit, it’s difficult not to think of Tsuburaya and his inexpertly-carried emotional baggage. Shepard excels at writing cold sequestered men who find themselves adrift despite enormous reserves of talent and insight. In this sense, Tsuburaya does not disappoint; Shepard elevates his perfectionism and work ethic to the level of monstrosity. From the opening scene of the novella where Tsuburaya realizes it is the day of the Star Festival— his suffering wife’s favorite holiday—and pretends that he has forgotten so that he can go to work anyway, it is clear what sort of man he is.

But Tsuburaya slowly peels himself like an onion, layer after layer of guilt and regret gathering at his feet: the pain of his perfectionism, a father who disowned him, a dead son, an estranged marriage, and a second son who wants to make all the same mistakes he has. Somehow, Shepard has made us sympathetic towards his monster and the relationship between Tsuburaya and his monster only continues to blur as the story progresses. When Shepard writes:

The face itself is changing through the context of what we’ve seen him go through. By the time the movie ends he’s like a hero whose departure we regret.

The reader must pause for a moment, unsure whether Shepard is gesturing towards Tsuburaya or the rubbery mutant dinosaur he’s birthed.

But as a lonely Tsuburaya broods on an empty train platform at the close of Master of Miniatures, we are reminded that this is not the end of either the man or his monstrous children. The image of Mothra, Tsuburaya’s next monster, is already forming in his mind. These are the truths we know: Life goes on; the monster will always return for a sequel. But it is with a surprising amount of dismay that we also realize that life is actually nothing more than a never-ending series of sequels for our hero, each one more harrowing than the last.


Buy the book here.

Welcome to Shepard Town

The Rumpus has selected Jim Shepard’s upcoming collection, “You Think That’s Bad” as it February Rumpus Book Club Selection!

Here is the full post:

Coming Soon: February.   And not just February, but the February Rumpus Book Club selection, You Think That’s Bad, the new collection of short stories by Jim Shepard, which The Rumpus Book Club members will receive more than a month before the book is available for purchase.

You can join the book club here. We’re only going to be able to accept a limited number of new subscribers this month.

We’re really excited about this. So excited we might just rename The Rumpus “Shepard Town.” As in, Welcome to Shepard Town.

Click here to join the Rumpus Bookclub.

Winter with the Writers Series at Rollins College

This will make you wish you were a student at Rollins.  From the website:

Some of the best writers from across the United States will take part in the 2011 Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Arts. In keeping with the College’s long-standing commitment to contemporary literature, the 2011 season features a diverse mix of the country’s most respected authors, including novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard and Irving Bachelor Professor of Creative Writing for 2010-11 David Henry Hwang.

The 2010 season of Winter With the Writers, A Festival of the Literary Arts, spotlights four major contemporary writers–the standing American poet laureate, two National Book Award winners in fiction and non-fiction, and the fine author of a novel made into a critically acclaimed movie–adding to the Rollins College tradition of creating a local literary community of international note. Before them, Sinclair Lewis, Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Carl Sandberg, Michael Ondaatje, Maya Angelou, Derek Walcott, Margot Livesey, Billy Collins and scores more writers have shown audiences in Central Florida how, out of the imagination, a stream of story moments or images can collect and then be arranged into narratives or lyric interludes to tell us how we live and who we are.

Jim Shepard will be joining this program on January 20, 2011.  Here’s a quote about Jim on their website:

“His narrators are a varied lot — a cosmonaut in love, Aeschylus at war, a kid packed off to summer camp. But what they share in common is a proximity to disaster and an uneasy sense that the distance between “what we want, and what we do” is as wide as it is deep. Everybody hurts. Everybody knows this. But Shepard knows it better. He also knows how to write his way around the mawkish side of this hurting. Stories that in lesser hands could easily go soft and sentimental are rendered here with clear eyes and true grit.” – Benjamin Alsup, Esquire.

To learn more about the Winter with the Writers Series at Rollins College, click here.

Excerpt: The Netherlands Lives with Water

Here is the opening passage from the story that was chosen for the Best American Short Stories 2010.  Enjoy!

The Netherlands Lives with Water

A long time ago a man had a dog that went down to the shoreline every day and howled. When she returned the man would look at her blankly. Eventually the dog got exasperated. “Hey,” the dog said. “There’s a shitstorm of biblical proportions headed your way.” “Please. I’m busy,” the man said. “Hey,” the dog said the next day, and told him the same thing. This went on for a week.  Finally the man said, “If you say that once more I’m going to take you out to sea and dump you overboard.” The next morning the dog went down to the shoreline again, and the man followed. “Hey,” the dog said, after a minute. “Yeah?” the man said. “Oh, I think you know,” she told him.

“Or here’s another one,” Cato says to me. “Adam goes to God, ‘Why’d you make Eve so beautiful?’ And God says, ‘So you would love her.’ And Adam says, ‘Well, why’d you make her so stupid?’ And God says, ‘So she would love you.’”

Henk laughs.

“Well, he thinks it’s funny,” Cato says.

“He’s eleven years old,” I tell her.

“And very precocious,” she reminds me. Henk makes an overly jovial face and holds two thumbs up. His mother takes her napkin and wipes some egg

We met in the same pre-university track. I was a year older but hadn’t passed Dutch, so I took it again with her.

“You failed Dutch?” she whispered from her seat behind me. She’d seen me gaping at her when I came in. The teacher had already announced that’s what those of us who were older were doing there.

This collection has been getting great reviews.  If you’re interested in purchasing the book, click here.

A reader discusses his favorite short stories

Here’s a wonderful post by a man named Harvey Freedenberg on The Book Lady’s Blog. The author is a lawyer who took a sabbatical to study creative writing.  It’s a wonderful post and here’s what he has to say about short stories:

Like many aspiring writers, I thought short stories were the training wheels of fiction and that once I picked up the basics of setting, character, plot and voice I’d move on to write my novel. What it took me a while to realize is that writing short stories is hard. It’s the reason why lots of people learn to ride a bike but only a handful of them make it to the Tour de France.  So I’m grateful for The Book Lady’s invitation to share with you some of the short stories I treasure, my Bare Necessities, ones that are so good they make me think writing a novel might turn out to be easier than creating one good, true story.

Harvey also mentions Jim Shepard in his post:

Short story writers, particularly those who’ve graduated from MFA programs in the past generation, are chided for producing precious, formulaic fiction. That criticism can’t be leveled at two astonishing collections I’ve read in recent years. One is Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which pretty much covers the globe (and beyond with a detour into space alongside some Russian cosmonauts) and the entire sweep of human history from Roman Britain to the present day (including visits to the French Revolution and nineteenth century Australia) in eleven stories…

The post goes on to quote an amazing passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I know to be a collection of stories that Jim loves as well.  Please take a look at the full post by clicking here.

The Rumpus Praises Jim’s Ploughshares Issue

Over at The Rumpus, Nancy Smith reviews the Ploughshares issue that Jim edited.  This is what she has to say:

“In his introduction to the issue, guest editor Jim Shepard says, “I’ve been drawn to protagonists who are geniuses at knitting together self-indictment and self-exoneration in ways that are both unconscious and calculated. Protagonists who leave us to sort through what they’ve figured out, what they can’t figure out, and what they won’t try to figure out about themselves.” In some ways, this neatly sums up the characters in this issue of Ploughshares; they are all characters who are stuck deep in the space of figuring things out. Lucky for us, it’s a complicated space, and an ideal place for a story to unfold.

This issue is devoted entirely to fiction, and there are nine cohesive stories included here. Each story is strong, and it’s clear that Shepard has meticulously curated this issue…

One of the best things about Ploughshares tradition of having guest-editors is that each issue feels like a fully realized collection. Many literary magazines feel disconnected; as if the editor gathered up all of the best submissions they received and stuck them into one edition. It’s a pleasure to read a literary magazine that feels so thoughtfully planned. Not only are the stories in this issue thematically linked, but the order in which they are placed invites us to make connections that we might not have otherwise seen.

Shepard has pulled together nine stories that, in one way or another, show us a world full of people who are still figuring things out, who are not quite sure of their place in the world, and who ultimately want to figure it out. Perhaps it’s that small sense of hope that gives the collection its cohesiveness. If nothing else, it gives us a beautiful set of stories that challenges our sense of self and reinforces the uncertainty inherent in all our lives.”

Click here to read the full review.

Thoughts on Jim From Around the Web

“Another story of travel, of a slightly more malevolent bent, is Ted and the Megalodon, by Jim Shepard. Even now, the final scene of that adventure lingers hauntingly with me.”

– Movie, Talkie, Readie, Listen: The Best of McSweeney’s Volume 1

“I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect and when I find one that’s all-out emotionally assaultive—like ‘Sans Farine,’ by Jim Shepard—I grab that baby and hold on tight.”

– Steven King, quoted in community.livejournal.com

“…list also needs more Jim Shepard..”

– “Top Ten Greatest Short Story Writers” forum

“Jim Shepard is to blame for six novels and four short story collections…”

– Vice Magazine: Employee of the Month